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NFL History: A look at trends for quarterbacks and turnovers

Mark Sanchez has had a problem with fumbles throughout his career - this goes beyond his much-lampooned "butt-fumble." Can QBs who have fumbling problems get rid of them?

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The trend for turnovers overall is a downward trend in the NFL. Fewer of them are happening. I'll be curious to see when (if ever) the plateau occurs.

Turnover by type per team per season

If we make that a per game analysis it looks like this:

Note the 2015 was either a historical low or near a historic low for both interceptions per team per game and fumbles per team per game. So with fewer turnovers happening, it stands to reason that those that do happen tend to have a larger impact on individual games than they used to. Who is "responsible" for the majority of NFL turnovers? Quarterbacks are. Leaving aside the discussion of QBs and interceptions, let's focus on QBs and fumbles.

Quarterbacks and Fumbles

Many Hall-of-Fame QBs have had a "fumble problem" at least at some point during their careers. I define a fumble problem as fumbling ten or more times in one season (regardless of which team recovers the fumbles). I focused on starting QBs to narrow down the data set and I defined a "starting" QB as QB who started ten or more games for his team during the regular season. I also only went back to 1980 which we near the zenith for both fumbles and interceptions in the NFL - giving us 27 seasons of data. There were 137 different instances of a QB fumbling 10 or more times in those 27 seasons.

Below is a table with how often some of the more notable QBs had seasons with 10 or more fumbles (*denotes Hall-of-Fame).

Player Times on list
Aaron Brooks 4
Aaron Rodgers 3
Alex Smith 2
Andrew Luck 2
Ben Roethlisberger 1
Bernie Kosar 2
Boomer Esiason 8
Brett Favre 7
Cam Newton 2
Carson Palmer 1
Dan Fouts* 3
Dan Marino* 1
Danny White 3
Daunte Culpepper 4
Dave Krieg 9
David Carr 4
Derek Carr 2
Donovan McNabb 2
Drew Bledsoe 4
Drew Brees 1
Eli Manning 3
Gus Frerotte 2
Jake Delhomme 3
Jay Cutler 3
Jim Kelly* 1
John Elway* 5
Jon Kitna 6
Josh McCown 4
Ken O'Brien 4
Kerry Collins 6
Kurt Warner 6
Mark Sanchez 3
Matt Ryan 1
Matt Schaub 1
Matthew Stafford 2
Michael Vick 5
Philip Rivers 2
Randall Cunningham 5
Robert Griffin 2
Russell Wilson 2
Ryan Tannehill 2
Sam Bradford 2
Tom Brady 5
Tony Romo 2
Vinny Testaverde 3
Warren Moon* 8

While that's interesting, it doesn't tell us how often these guys had fumble prone seasons so that is shown in the table below. This shows the NFL career leaders in fumbles (showing QBs only) along with some of the more fumble prone QBs currently playing who are not in the top 100 all-time (yet).

Player (age if active) FMB Years Active GS FMB/GS
Josh McCown (36) 63 2002-2015 57 111%
Daunte Culpepper 102 1999-2009 100 102%
Tony Banks 73 1996-2005 78 94%
Robert Griffin (26) 32 2012-2015 35 91%
David Carr 71 2002-2012 79 90%
Kurt Warner 102 1998-2009 116 88%
Jon Kitna 109 1997-2011 124 88%
Dave Krieg 153 1980-1998 175 87%
Don Meredith 71 1960-1968 83 86%
Michael Vick (35) 98 2001-2015 115 85%
Rodney Peete 71 1989-2004 87 82%
Steve Beuerlein 82 1988-2003 102 80%
Warren Moon+ 161 1984-2000 203 79%
Randall Cunningham 105 1985-2001 135 78%
Kerry Collins 139 1995-2011 180 77%
Jack Kemp 78 1957-1969 105 74%
Danny White 68 1976-1988 92 74%
Trent Dilfer 82 1994-2007 113 73%
Aaron Brooks 64 2000-2006 90 71%
Boomer Esiason 123 1984-1997 173 71%
Mark Sanchez (29) 51 2009-2015 72 71%
Babe Parilli 71 1952-1969 101 70%
Gus Frerotte 65 1994-2008 93 70%
Jeff Blake 68 1992-2005 100 68%
Roman Gabriel 105 1962-1977 157 67%
Ken O'Brien 72 1984-1993 110 65%
Steve McNair 99 1995-2007 153 65%
Jay Schroeder 64 1985-1994 99 65%
Chris Chandler 98 1988-2004 152 64%
Drew Bledsoe 123 1993-2006 193 64%
Derek Carr (25) 20 2014-2015 32 63%
Neil Lomax 63 1981-1988 101 62%
Dan Fouts+ 106 1973-1987 171 62%
Jay Cutler (32) 83 2006-2015 134 62%
Earl Morrall 63 1956-1976 102 62%
Steve Grogan 81 1975-1990 135 60%
Rich Gannon 79 1987-2004 132 60%
Russell Wilson (27) 38 2012-2016 64 59%
Ryan Tannehill (27) 38 2012-2015 64 59%
John Elway+ 137 1983-1998 231 59%
Steve DeBerg 83 1978-1998 140 59%
Donovan McNabb 95 1999-2011 161 59%
Dan Pastorini 69 1971-1983 117 59%
Phil Simms 93 1979-1993 159 58%
Andrew Luck (26) 32 2012-2015 55 58%
Tobin Rote 67 1950-1966 116 58%
Lynn Dickey 64 1971-1985 111 58%
Jeff George 70 1990-2001 124 56%
Jim Harbaugh 79 1987-2000 140 56%
Brett Favre 166 1991-2010 298 56%
Bobby Layne+ 80 1948-1962 145 55%
Jake Plummer 75 1997-2006 136 55%
Joe Flacco (31) 67 2008-2015 122 55%
Vinny Testaverde 116 1987-2007 214 54%
Eli Manning (35) 98 2004-2015 183 54%
Terry Bradshaw+ 84 1970-1983 158 53%
Len Dawson+ 84 1957-1975 159 53%
Archie Manning 73 1971-1984 139 53%
Aaron Rodgers (32) 62 2005-2015 119 52%
Johnny Unitas+ 95 1956-1973 185 51%
Philip Rivers (34) 82 2004-2015 160 51%
Brad Johnson 64 1994-2008 125 51%
Tony Romo (35) 65 2004-2015 127 51%
Ron Jaworski 72 1974-1989 143 50%
Mark Brunell 76 1994-2011 151 50%
Joe Ferguson 82 1973-1990 171 48%
Steve Young+ 68 1985-1999 143 48%
Jim Kelly+ 76 1986-1996 160 48%
Ben Roethlisberger (34) 80 2004-2015 169 47%
Craig Morton 68 1965-1982 144 47%
Dan Marino+ 110 1983-1999 240 46%
Tom Brady (38) 102 2000-2015 223 46%
Ken Stabler 66 1970-1984 146 45%
John Hadl 73 1962-1977 166 44%
Drew Brees (37) 91 2001-2015 216 42%
Matt Hasselbeck (40) 67 1999-2015 160 42%
Jim Everett 64 1986-1997 153 42%
Carson Palmer (36) 66 2004-2015 159 42%
Bart Starr+ 64 1956-1971 157 41%
Jim Hart 65 1966-1984 180 36%
Fran Tarkenton+ 84 1961-1978 239 35%
Peyton Manning 77 1998-2015 265 29%

+ denotes HOF. FMB = fumbles. GS = Games Started

Now this is interesting. This table shows us who had a fumble problem throughout their career and who just happened to have a bad season or two. There is no sugar-coating it; Mark Sanchez has a fumble problem. In three of his four seasons as a starting QB in the NFL he has fumbled the ball 10 or more times. Andrew Luck and Derek Carr have a chance to improve their ball security (unless they are being sacked by Von Miller) because they are both in the early parts of their careers (assuming that they both have long careers). So let's look at some of the retired and soon-to-retire QBs and see When they had their fumble problem(s). Did this happen only at the beginning of their careers, i.e. could they correct this, or did this occur somewhat randomly throughout their NFL careers? This is ostensibly asking the question: "Can Mark Sanchez lessen his propensity to fumble?"

Long-term QBs who were really good at NOT fumbling

This is a list of the QBs who had "long" careers, yet only had one year with 10 or more fumbles

Quarterback Year of Career when they had 10 or more fumbles
Dan Marino* 6th
Drew Brees 9th
Ben Roethlisberger 5th
Jim Kelly* 9th
Carson Palmer 3rd
Matt Ryan 8th
Matt Schaub 5th - 2nd as starter

Notice that none of these guys had their bad fumble year during their first year as a starter. Only Matt Schaub had his bad fumble year as a relatively inexperienced starting QB. So can we find an example of a QB who had a fumble problem and corrected it? Let's focus on some of the individual QBs and see.

We don't have to move very far down the list to find one, Tony Romo. He fumbled the ball 32 times in his first 39 starts. In his next 88 starts he only fumbled the ball 33 times - effectively cutting his fumble rate in half. Alex Smith is another example. He fumbled 21 times in his first 23 starts, but has only fumbled 39 more times during his last 98 starts.Tom Brady had a bad problem with fumbles during his first three years starting, which he has corrected for the most part although he had a bad fumble season in his 6th and 12th years as an NFL starting QB. Brady fumbled the ball 36 times in his first 46 starts. In his next 187 starts he has only fumbles 66 times. In his 2012 season where he started all 16 games he only fumbled twice. Interestingly enough there are some QBs who have gotten worse later in their career as opposed to better. During his time in Poxboro, Bledsoe only fumbled 68 times in 123 starts. After leaving the "home of the deflated balls", Bledsoe fumbled 55 times in his remaining 70 NFL starts - including 17 times to lead the league in fumbles in 2005 in Dallas. Another has gotten worse as his career progressed is Matthew Stafford. He only fumbled 17 times in his first 45 starts. He has fumbled 26 times in his last 48 starts including leading the league with 12 fumbles in 2013. So there is a precedent for QBs getting better at holding onto the ball and for QBs getting worse. Let's hope that if Mark Sanchez is our starter this season, he will fumble less than he has during his first four years as a full-time starting QB in the NFL.